Life is far, far too short to spend it doing crap. While your days don’t have to be jam-packed with meaning and spiritual fulfillment, spending time with crap people doing crap things eating crap food is an American institution that needs to end. Begone, your big-box store fashions, your fast-food-franchise gluttony, your crap coffee, and people who are generally a waste of air. Yeah and verily, I say, enough with the crap fest! Fill your brain with good (or at least not crappy) words from authors who care about what they are doing. A decent book should make you think, “Holy cow that’s interesting.”
That’s BFD—high-quality reading to feed that sexy little brain of yours.
And hey, when you’re done with this, click on over to Neal Wyatt’s incredible RA Crossroads where you’ll find more unparalleled reader’s advisory than you can shake a stick at—and I’ve seen you shake a stick, Chumley.
Bailey, Mark. Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History. Algonquin. Sept. 2014. 336p. ISBN 9781565125933. $21.95. HIST
This is a massively cool collection of 70 anecdotes about renowned Hollywooders with 40 cocktail recipes to accompany their assorted debaucheries. Presented roughly chronologically, four distinct film eras are covered. The Silent era (1895–1929) has dudes like John Barrymore lit to the gills; the Studio age (1929–1945) sees Raymond Chandler et al. face down in disgusting liquids; the Postwar period (1945–1960) has Bogart and his buds badly hammered; and the “New Hollywood” epoch (1960–1979) features Richard Burton and Co. blitzed into liver-damaged shakes. There are wild anecdotes about Orson Welles drunkenly flinging lit sterno cans at John Houseman; Buster Keaton waking up drunk and married in Ensenada, Mexico; and William Holden (convicted of vehicular manslaughter in 1966, by the way), who “routinely took two shots of whiskey before a scene.” William Faulkner hired a male nurse to carry “…a bottle in a black doctor’s satchel” and “…ration out drinks of whiskey” through which he spewed out classics like The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not. Though womenfolk are here too, the manecdotes are more hardcore. To be fair, countering Liz Taylor’s rather mild drinkage of chocolate martinis with Rock Hudson on location for Giant, readers do get Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra (then married to Nancy) getting blind drunk, speeding in Frank’s convertible to Indio, CA, and shooting up the town with pistols. Throughout, the book is shot with historical tidbits about famous places and drinks as well as Edward Hemingway’s illustrations, which strike a great balance between caricature and noir-cool.
Gnaar, Jón. Gnarr!: How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World. Melville House. 2014. 192p. ISBN 9781612194134. $23.95. AUTOBIOG
This is a spirited, breezy romp through the life of Gnarr who, as the title implies, invented a new left-of-center party for Reykjavik. This “Best Party” won a plurality of seats (six out of 15) in 2010, and what began as a satirical lark—with leanings toward anarchy—turned real. A professional comedian and performer, the author basically led the charge to bring to task those who caused Iceland’s 2008–11 economic meltdown, getting votes from of a lot of riled up people and those who wanted a change. Unfortunately, there is little of substance to the movement and the memoir. Gnaar’s “platform” is made up of sentiments such as “Free dental treatment for children and the disadvantaged,” which, while really quite nice, is long on magical thinking. Gnarr himself comes off as meatless, mild, and tame and freely acknowledges that the Best Party “governs” the city in partnership with the more established Social Democrat Alliance. Perhaps this stands as a lesson in charisma, akin to the U.S. electing an actor or a clown as President (oh, wait). VERDICT Gnarr’s bio reads as though he is the Icelandic Dean Martin: sunny-time frolicking with smiles and revelry. Perhaps we should turn back to that perpetual Icelandic favorite, the women’s cross-country skiing team?
Lovesey, Peter. The Stone Wife. Soho Crime. Sept. 2014. 368p. ISBN 9781616953935. $26.95. F
Bath, England: A public auction goes horribly wrong when the high bidder attempts to stop three armed men in balaclavas from making off with Lot 129: a “slab of carved stone about one metre in length, half a metre wide and as thick as a mattress.” The sculpture is also known as the Wife of Bath (that’s from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Chumley). It takes only a short time for Chief Superintendent Peter Diamond’s squad to figure out who would bid so high on such a weird object—renowned Chaucer expert and aficionado Prof. John Gildersleeve. “You Googled Gildersleeve?” quips the slightly dinosauric chief at one point, adding “Sounds like something out of the Goon Show.” Diamond’s genuine, catching humor is especially endearing (if you don’t believe it, read his end of a conversation that references Philip Larkin’s poem Annus Mirabilis). The bulk of the book is devoted to figuring out who could be motivated enough to murder for the Wife of Bath, and the sleuthing Diamond and Co. soon have eyes on a thug who’s sugar-daddying an up-and-coming pop star. VERDICT This is a 100 per cent win from Lovesey, who proves an embarrassment of authorial riches by managing to keep the plot propulsive, the dialog pithy, the cops’ jokes and good humor strong, and the characters easily identifiable. A great procedural whodunnit with an interesting maguffin. This is the 14th book in the “Peter Diamond” series, and it’s enough to make readers flip back through the previous 13.
Mangan, Lucy. Inside Charlie’s Chocolate Factory: The Complete Story of Willy Wonka, The Golden Ticket, and Roald Dahl’s Most Famous Creation. Dial. Sept. 2014. 224p. ISBN 9780147513489. pap. $19.99. LIT
I am firmly embedded in the Roald Dahl fan camp—in fact I blame Mr. D. for ruining my eyes when I was in fourth grade by making me stay up late reading his books in the dark so now I need glasses. So to me, Mangan’s fantastic book is like free meth to a tweaker, and I’m betting the same will be true for you. Eight well-organized chapters each deal with a discreet focus area. From writing about the book and its origins in a story called “Charlie’s Chocolate Boy” to covering the title’s effect on popular culture, Mangan proves to be astute, comprehensive, and completely readable. One chapter identifies candy bearing the Wonka brand; a significant portion of the book is devoted to the different incarnations of the story on stage and screen. It is an especially visual book, with much samplings of the art of the four main editions (Dahl himself was fondest of Quentin Blake’s art) and various photos of drafts, scribblings, and photos of Dahl at home and at work. The behind-the-scenes stories are fascinating, especially the nightmarishly personal situation that Dahl and his wife, the actress Patricia Neal, were in at the time he was writing the book. One even learns how to properly pronounce Roald—“…long stretched Roo, al like the end of mall, silent D” from Roald’s daughter, contributor Lucy Dahl. Mangan doesn’t fall prey to mere empty fan-dom about Dahl’s work, and the book ends with a hilarious and succinctly accurate rendering of various critics’ takes, including Marxists, who said that “the factory is the distilled essence of capitalism” and Freudians, who note that the book “…releases a child’s anxieties about bodily functions, physical injury, and death.” VERDICT Every time I pick this damn book up I have trouble putting it down. Insightful and well-written, it’s both a celebration and a review. And don’t forget that it’s the 50th anniversary of Charlie this year, y’all.
Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion. The Experiment. 2014. 272p. ed. by Jeremy Webb. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9781615192052. SCI
Reminiscent of “the Great Explainer” Isaac Asimov’s popular science essays, this title features experts in fields as varied as cosmology, mathematics, biology, psychology, medicine, and physics contributing short essays that wax on the different meanings of the number zero and “nothing.” Contributors consider zero, oblivion, and absence while they provide answers to questions such as, “What is a vacuum?” and “How do placebos work?” and point out that the number 0 didn’t quite take hold until the 17th century concomitant with the decline of Aristotelian cosmology and the rise of Descartes’s system of coordinates—something you can use as a conversation starter the next time you’re fixing a flat on a mountain bike ride. The book is chock-a-block with fascinating knowledge, such as that your brain has a “default network” mode controlled by your medial prefrontal cortex; this kicks into gear only when you’re doing nothing. Instead of conventionally grouping the essays by topic (cosmology, mathematics, etc.), Webb “…created chapters around topics such as beginnings, mysteries, and surprises” in hopes of intriguing readers “with the sheer breadth of the ways in which nothing has influenced our thinking.” Valerie Jamieson contributes an especially good chapter on “Boring-ology” which reports on what’s going on “when nothing’s going on,” e.g., you’re watching paint dry (the polymers are all joining together), waiting for your fingernails to grow (1/10th of a mm per day), or watching the grass grow. VERDICT You don’t need to be a nerd to enjoy these likeable micro-histories/lessons. The collection keeps a quick pace, uses non-scientific language, and highlights the excellent writing that goes into New Scientist magazine, from which the essays are all reprinted.
Pelletier, Cathie. A Year After Henry. Sourcebooks Landmark. Aug. 2014. 272p. ISBN 9781402296789. pap. $14.99. F
Three people living in the same Maine community wrestle with their lives after the sudden death of Henry Munroe, a charismatic shitheel whose charm and magnetic personality resonated far beyond his control. Pelletier uses the one-year run-up to Henry’s anniversary memorial service to define each of these three finely drawn individuals through their life struggles. Henry’s tightly wrapped wife Jeanie is primed to unspool, prone to sitting in her car smoking and drinking while watching Henry’s mistress’s house. “It had been a long year,” she thinks. “Twelve godawful months that she had to be firm and steady for the children.” Henry’s thoughtful, if centerless, brother Larry delivers mail—and reads it, too (though not in a prurient way) while he waits to see if his teaching job will be reinstated. The book’s center is Henry’s mistress Evie, a bartender who also draws portraits of the spirits of the departed. She comes to realize that “…all the dead want is for the living is to know that someone is watching, someone is taking note, someone is nearby, so that the living will never have to hurt alone.” At times the writing gets a bit, well, girly: Jeanie wonders if her mother-in-law could give her “…a recipe that would tell her how to mix the anger with the grief, how many teaspoons of bitterness with how many teaspoons of sorrow”?* But Pelletier also fills the book with truisms, as when a sage-like character comments on the kind of woman who “…will beat on a man until he lifts a hand to protect himself and the next thing he knows, he’s in jail for assault and battery.” VERDICT Driven by a tight focus on dynamic character growth, Pelletier’s people are a marvel, so real that (just like you) they aren’t always terribly likeable.
* If any cookbook has that it’ll be Steven Raichlen’s Man Made Meals: The Essential Cookbook for Guys (Workman, 2014).
Rotstein, Robert. Reckless Disregard. Seventh Street. 2014. 352p. ISBN 9781616148812. pap. $15.95. F
Attorney Parker Stern is damaged-goods: once a hotshot trialist, his awful courtroom stage fright has consigned him to doing boring mediation work in Santa Monica. Not yet 40, unmarried, no kids, and independently wealthy, Stern gets mucho excitamento when retained by a mysterious video game developer who is revered as a folk hero for his aggressive political activism, and is known as Poniard. Poniard’s games—such as his version of Macbeth set in the White House—“oppose imperialism, capitalism, fascism, and the cult of celebrity.” The developer’s latest, Abduction!, is a survival-horror game that accuses a mighty business magnate of orchestrating an actress’s disappearance/murder. It’s straight-up libel, so it’s illegal. Using his huge brain, guided by advice from a beloved mentor, and relying on help from two trusted assistants, Stern maneuvers around the defense of his client. The situation is replete with corporate barbarism, murder, spurned love, and more murder, all of which requires Stern to very, very carefully kick a lot of hornets’ nests in the just-right spots—and work extra-hard to keep his own secrets private. One great twist gives readers sneak peeks at the case’s clues through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy who doggedly works through Abduction!’s levels. While readers may well feel that there are too many threads to the plot, the book has more intimately drawn characters (e.g., an anguished Alzheimer’s patient and his wife) than your typical legal thriller. VERDICT Rotstein clearly explains the legal-esque bits (like libel) and his workmanlike style is a breeze to read. A refreshingly merciless attitude toward killing off characters and the frenzied pace make this second “Parker Stern” novel (after Corrupt Practices) a swirling, careening, and *completely* addictive experience.
Schimmoeller, Mark. Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America. Chelsea Green. Aug. 2014. 328p. ISBN 9781603585903. pap. $17.95. MEMOIR
A man stands naked in the cold air of a winter’s morning. Because he has to? No, because he wants to. He savors the anticipation of a warm-water outdoor bath near his home. He’s there “…to feel the heat of the water and more to the point, to feel the heat of the water after being cold.” This anticipatory streak in Schimmoeller is his defining characteristic, the one that helped him to unicycle his way across the USA in 1992. Though there is plenty about the physical journey, the book is less about that than it is him expostulating on life generally, especially the one he has built with his wife living off the grid in rural Kentucky. He darts back and forth through time, managing to charm the hell out of readers the whole way. With liberal amounts of verbiage and a winning disregard for moving his story forward, Schimmoeller’s story meanders exactly as a pleasant, cool stream would: seeking its own level, going at its own pace, beholden only to itself—and exuberantly charming in that freedom. After a co-Valedictorian high school career (but no dates with girls), the author majored in English and spent some unhappy time working for a NYC magazine. He gradually came to the idea that, instead, he would let life rip. He’d “…put the backpack on, strap the canteen over me, and launch myself on the unicycle.” VERDICT Homesteaders, independent thinkers, off-the-gridders, slowpokes of the world, and those who love dudes like us—unite! We have found our superhero/poet laureate!
Zombory-Moldován, Béla. The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914. New York Review Books Classics. Aug. 2014. 176p. ISBN 9781590178096. pap. $16.95. MEMOIR
This is an absolutely fascinating first-person account of a random dude a hundred years ago who gets conscripted into the Army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (doesn’t that seem like it should be more like 500 years ago?) for what is now known as World War I. After reporting to Veszprém as a low-level officer, he marches 30-plus miles to Tapolca, noting that “[o]nly the rhythmical clump of two thousand heavy hobnailed boots caused the air, bathed in sparkling sunlight, to quiver.” Deployed near Keszthely at the Hungarian–Russian front, he is wounded in the Russian victory at the Battle of Rawa (now part of Ukraine), remarking, “The next instant it feels as though the earth has collided with another planet, and I am caught between the two.” After an arduous journey to the hospital, the author is given three months recuperative leave which he spends writing about the people he meets (e.g., the men on leave “limped like martyrs and told the worst horror-stories”) and ruminatively convalescing. By the end of the chronicle he wonders, “‘[w]ho benefits from this wrecking? what’s the purpose of it?’” and also “…how to put into words the rupture that had taken place” within him. VERDICT Though his book was intended as a personal journal, Zombory-Moldován’s account moves along nicely, and the way he interlaces lyrical descriptions of everyday life into his language, his cadence, and choices of words all capture the pace of life at that time.